The Oyster Path at CBF’s Brock Environmental Center

CBF's Oyster Path will take you on a journey through not only CBF's oyster restoration programs, but also the science, history, and culture of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Visit this fascinating walking path of interpretive signs on the grounds of CBF’s Brock Environmental Center or watch the video tour above. A transcript is provided here. Highlights about each stop along the path begins here.

Overhead image of the Brock Environmental Center shows the five stops along the Oyster Path.

Watch the video to follow along our virtual Oyster Path. Following are the video timestamps for each stop along the trail.   1. Start of video;   2. Oyster Shell Recycling - 01:14;   3. Reef Balls - 04:41;   4. Oyster Gardening - 09:12;   5. Oyster Barge - 12:53

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Our interpretive path at CBF’s Brock Environmental Center introduces visitors to CBF's oyster restoration program—from shell recycling and reef balls to oyster gardening and our oyster restoration barges—while journeying through the science, history, and culture of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay region. Along the way you’ll learn how oysters are central to the history and culture of those who live and work on the water, including American Indians, European colonists, and African Americans.

As you walk the Oyster Path—or follow this virtual tour—you'll discover how CBF and its many partners are restoring the Bay’s oyster population. You'll also learn how you can support the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance’s efforts to add 10 billion oysters to the Bay and its rivers by 2025.

The Oyster Path was made possible thanks to generous support from the Colpitts Family in honor of Ghent Montessori School.

Bringing Back the Chesapeake Oyster

CBF and many oyster restoration partners in the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance are working together to build sanctuary oyster reefs and seed them with oyster spat across the Bay watershed. Along CBF’s oyster path, see step by step how it’s done—from recycling oyster shells from restaurants, to creating and setting reef balls and other alternative surfaces that create homes for oysters, to volunteer oyster gardening programs, to the oyster barges where baby oysters are nurtured and prepared for planting on reefs.

To learn more about the following topics, watch the video at the timestamps listed.

Path Stop #1: Introduction to the Path

The Role of Oysters in the Chesapeake’s Ecosystem

[Video timestamp: 00:00]

Since the formation of the Chesapeake Bay, Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, has played a keystone role in the ecosystem. Healthy adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, helping remove nutrient pollution. Historically, large oyster reefs thrived in the Bay and its tidal rivers. These reefs are home to hundreds of species of marine life. Their many nooks and crannies provide food and hiding places, forming a nursery for crabs, shrimp, and small fish. These in turn attract larger species, from striped bass to stingrays to dolphins. Because of this abundance of life, people have long relied on oyster reefs for food as well.

While oysters are part of the fabric of Chesapeake Bay culture, their population has fallen to a tiny fraction of historic levels due to a combination of disease, pollution, and overharvesting. Fortunately, in recent years, restoration efforts and a growing aquaculture industry are making progress at bringing back the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic oyster population.

Path Stop #2: Oyster Shell Recycling

Oysters and Indigenous Peoples

[Video timestamp 01:59]
In this section of the video, we find out about CBF's oyster shell recycling program, as well as the history between Chesapeake oysters and local American Indian tribes.

Traditional ancestral lands of many Indigenous tribes lie along the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Their descendants still live and work along these waterways today, including members of Virginia’s 11 state-recognized tribes and Maryland’s three state-recognized tribes. Oysters have long been a staple in the diets of the Chesapeake’s native people.

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, an alliance known as Tsenacomoco in eastern Virginia and Maryland included around 30 tribes of Algonquin-speaking American Indians. They harvested oysters near the shoreline by hand or with the use of tools, wading in the shallow water and favoring mid-sized oysters. This harvest method ensured a sustainable, long-term oyster fishery.

Across the Lynnhaven River from the Oyster Path, deposits of shellfish and other materials, called middens, indicate the Chesapeake Tribe harvested oysters and other shellfish to eat. They also used shells to create shell-tempered ceramics.  

In recent years, the Nansemond Indian Nation in Suffolk has worked closely with CBF in oyster restoration work, joining the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance in 2020.

Path Stop #3: Reef Balls

Oysters and European Colonists

[Video timestamp 03:12]
In this section of the video, we learn how CBF uses reef balls to expand oyster restoration throughout the Bay, and we look at history's next chapter as European colonists are introduced to the Chesapeake's oysters.

European colonists arrived at the beginning of the 1600s and described Chesapeake oyster reefs so vast that they posed navigational hazards. In their letters back to England, they noted large oysters up to 13 inches long.

While the winter of 1609 was known as “the starving times” at Jamestown, the colonists were able to survive by eating oysters. But as their population grew, colonists switched from harvesting oysters by hand to using boats, which could access deeper waters. Along with boats, oyster tongs entered the scene in the 1700s, allowing the removal of more oysters from deeper waters. The introduction of dredges in the 1800s led to even more efficient, yet more potentially damaging, harvest methods.

Path Stop #4: Oyster Gardening

Oysters and Black History

[Video timestamp 05:32]
In this section of the video, we learn about CBF's oyster gardening program, and move into the 1800s and the contributions Black watermen made to the Chesapeake's oystering tradition.

The first enslaved Africans in the Chesapeake region were forced across the Atlantic in the 1600s. Many enslaved Africans brought with them highly valuable knowledge, including maritime skills. Those working in maritime trades often experienced a slightly higher level of trust and freedom than enslaved people on land.

After Emancipation, despite legal and social discrimination, Black presence in maritime work grew exponentially. That includes boating and oystering along the Hampton Flats and in the James and York rivers. In fact, during the 1880s Black Americans accounted for 80 percent of the oystermen on the York. From 1870 to 1970, many of these watermen made their way to the docks before sunrise, in multiple layers of clothing, to scrape the ice off their boats before heading out to tong or dredge for oysters.

As a result, Black watermen held a special power in their towns. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Hampton, John Mallory Phillips commanded his own fleet and invested in enterprises that helped his community. Watermen like Phillips were economic and political leaders in their region, making a decent living and creating vibrant communities along the Bay.

Other notable Black watermen of the Chesapeake include Earl White, named First Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay by Maryland’s Governor; Vince Leggett, who created the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation; and Nat Jones, a lifelong waterman on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

Path Stop #5: The Oyster Barge

Watermen and Aquaculture

[Video timestamp 09:53]
In this final section of the video, we are introduced to the final steps in growing oyster larvae on recycled shell and planting them on reefs. We also look at how Chesapeake oystering has evolved through aquaculture.

The watermen who work the Bay today are well-versed in the key role of oysters to our region. While the wild harvest of oysters remains important in the Chesapeake, cultivating oysters through aquaculture now complements traditional harvesting methods for oysters. Oyster aquaculture has tremendous potential for achieving ecological benefits while providing economic opportunities for coastal communities.

Oyster restoration also depends on people like you to be stewards of the Bay. There are many ways to help, from advocacy to participating in oyster gardening. Find out what you can do today.

If you live outside the Hampton Roads area and want to get involved, check these links:

Video Transcript

Welcome to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Oyster Path at the Brock Center. As we walk the path, you'll learn about the importance of oysters to the ecosystem and the economy, what CBF does to protect them, and the history of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Alongside our partners at the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, we are working hard to restore the Bay's oyster population. Healthy adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, helping remove nutrient pollution. Some of these pollutants are packed into pseudofeces and deposited on the reef. These nutrients are utilized by small marine animals and others who live on the reef. Oyster reefs are home to hundreds of species of marine life, such as larger fish like striped bass and eels, as well as provide crucial habitat as a nursery for baby blue crabs. This iconic species is part of the fabric of the Chesapeake Bay culture. Oysters influence the lives of various groups of individuals, beginning with American Indians to European colonists, and on through the modern watermen. But all this and more to come, so let's get started.

Check out CBF's shell recycling efforts. Oyster, clam, and mussel shells can all be recycled here. When oysters are harvested from the Bay, it removes potential habitat for new oysters to grow. And since oyster shells are becoming increasingly scarce the Save Oyster Shells recycling program offers a place to eventually return used shells to the Chesapeake Bay. However, before this can happen, recycled shells are carried on land for six months to remove any organic material or bacteria. Next, millions of oyster larvae are placed in large water tanks filled with shell bags. In the tanks, larvae attached to the shells, and are now called spat. Now you may be wondering, why do we recycle oyster shells and restore oysters? Well to answer that we have to take a look back at the history of human interactions with oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. While the story of the Chesapeake Bay starts ten thousand years ago, the chapters involving humans begin around 3,000 years ago. Traditional ancestral lands of several tribes of Indigenous people were found in coastal Virginia, including but not limited to, the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Chesapeake, Chickahominy, Nansemond Indian Nation, Nottoway, Mattaponi, Monacan Indian Nation, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Rappahannock.

Their descendants still live and work along these waters. And just across the Lynnhaven River from where we stand, in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach, deposits of shellfish and other materials, called middens, indicate the Chesapeake tribe harvested oysters and other shellfish to eat, using some shells to create shell-tempered ceramics. Nearing the end of the 1500s and the beginning of the 1600s, Powhatan created an alliance on the eastern coast of Virginia that was home to around 30 tribes of Algonquin-speaking American Indians. These individuals harvested oysters near the shoreline by hand or with the use of tools, wading in the shallow water and favoring mid-size oysters. This harvest method ensured a sustainable, long-term oyster fishery. European colonists arrived at the beginning of the 1600s, providing written accounts of oyster reefs filling the Chesapeake Bay, even proposing navigational hazards. In their letters back to England, they noted how large the oysters were. Some were around 13 inches long. Imagine needing to cut an oyster in half before eating it. Plus, Captain John Smith noted an oyster reef that was seven miles long on the Nansemond River. However, illness introduced by Europeans caused significant loss of life among the Indigenous population. Colonists took land, causing wars and social upheaval, only furthering the loss of life of the Indigenous people living in Virginia. In this time, the oyster remained integral as colonists collected oysters by hand near the shore to eat. The winter of 1609 was even known as "the starving times" at Jamestown, but the colonists survived by eating oysters. As the colonist population grew, contributing to the decline of the Indigenous population, the colonists harvested more oysters with boats, to access deeper waters for their harvest. Along with boats, oyster tongs entered the scene in the 1700s, allowing for the removal of more oysters from deeper waters and leading to the harvest methods seen today. Speaking of boats, that's how CBF gets our next restoration method into the Chesapeake Bay. Let's walk over and check it out.

Now shells are not the only substrate that oysters grow on. These dome-like concrete structures with holes are called reef balls. Similar to the recycled shells, reef balls are placed in large tanks filled with water and oyster larvae that attach to them before they are placed in the Bay. Like a natural reef, these 3d structures allow for vertical growth of oysters and are great homes to the hundreds of other species that live in the Chesapeake Bay. Furthermore, their igloo-like formation allows water to circulate and bring oxygen and nutrients to the reef dwellers. In the past decade, volunteers have helped us build and deploy hundreds of reef balls that serve as new homes for baby oysters in the Bay. Many of our volunteers are proud community members, with a love for the Bay that has passed down through generations. And while American Indians and European colonists played a significant role in the shaping of the Chesapeake Bay region, Black Americans also had a major contribution. The first enslaved Africans who were taken from their homes and forced across the Atlantic to the Chesapeake region in the 1600s were primarily exploited for agricultural purposes. However, enslaved Africans brought with them maritime skills and knowledge, including oystering and boat building skills that were highly valued. Maritime trades often came with a slightly higher level of trust and freedom than enslaved people experienced on land. Plus, those who were on boats were able to assist freedom seekers across various rivers along the Underground Railroad, which operated from the early 1800s up and through the civil war in 1865, with or without the assistance of Underground Railroad conductors. As large-scale fisheries developed, over-harvesting in New England and New York led to a collapse of the commercial fishery, shifting the main supply of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. And it was Black watermen who worked many of the boats. Despite harsh legal and social discrimination, even after Emancipation, Black presence in maritime work grew exponentially, particularly in boating and oystering along the Hampton Flats and in the James and York rivers. In fact,during the 1880s, Black Americans accounted for 80 percent of the oystermen on the York. From 1870 to 1970, many of these watermen made their way to the docks before sunrise in multiple layers of clothing to scrape the ice off their boats before heading out to tong or dredge for oysters. The immense difficulty of their job offered a rare economic opportunity. As a result, Black watermen held a special power in their towns. One of the most significant was a waterman from Hampton, John Mallory Phillips, who gained enough money and respect to be able to command his own fleet and invest in enterprises that helped his community. Watermen like Phillips were economic and political leaders in the region, making a decent living and creating vibrant communities within Hampton Roads and along the Bay. Ultimately, mainland jobs opened up, some as a result of desegregation. These jobs on land and the dramatic decline of oysters led to the decline in the number and prominence of Black watermen, a situation which would ultimately hurt the communities. Yet, the culture and love for the Bay has remained in many of their descendants, including people like Earl White, whose efforts towards education and protection of the Bay made him one of the first Admirals of the Chesapeake Bay, the highest honor Maryland's Governor can give to a steward of the Chesapeake. Or Vince Leggett, who created the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, which is dedicated to sharing the legacy of Black achievements in the seafood and maritime industries, preserving and conserving the environment, and promoting the success of the seafood industry in the Mid-Atlantic region. And even Devan Ogbern, an American University student who served as the president of both the Student Bay Advisory Council and the Maryland Association of Student Councils. These individuals are examples of stewards of the Bay, and play a crucial role in fulfilling CBF's mission. But anyone can be a steward of the Bay, so let's find out how.

If you've ever wanted to raise oysters, welcome to oyster gardening. We grow baby oysters on the recycled shells in the tanks, and then give them to people like you who volunteer as oyster gardeners. Using these oyster cages, gardeners take care of their oysters for about a year before returning them to CBF. In addition to oysters, oyster gardeners might find seahorses, crabs, blennies, and a host of other life in the cages. At the end of the process, CBF returns the oysters to the Chesapeake Bay tributaries to restore oyster reefs and populations. If it seems like there are a lot of people involved in oyster restoration, there are, and it reflects the variety of people out on the Bay daily, restoring and harvesting oysters. These are the watermen and women who depend on the Bay for their livelihoods. The job of a waterman has changed over time, but one thing has remained constant, the amount of hard work it takes. They still play the classic role of harvesting seafood, like fish, crabs, and, of course, oysters, but their role extends far beyond that. For example, aquaculture is beginning to complement traditional harvesting methods for oysters. Simply, this is the practice of cultivating seafood rather than fishing for it. For oysters, this practice can look a lot like oyster gardening. This is well known by Taryn Brice-Rowland and her partner, Aaron Rowland, who own Rogue Oyster, an oyster farm in the Northern Neck. For the Rowlands, this idea came from their involvement in oyster gardening. The couple enjoyed the process so much, they decided to make it a lifestyle, sustainably farming and selling oysters. Every day, they live out their passion as expressed in their farm's mission statement: "We aim to make a living making people happy with our delicious oysters, while doing our part to save the Chesapeake Bay and save families." As a result of past action, some of today's watermen have developed a conservation ethic to ensure they are able to keep their industry and livelihoods going. While this is certainly not easy, many are driven by their pure love of their work and the Bay, a sentiment that is well understood by lifelong waterman Nathaniel "Nat" Jones. Born in 1926, Jones remembers waking up early as a child to go fishing, crabbing, and boating with his family. After being drafted into World War II at the age of 17, he returned to his life at the Bay. Upon his return, he worked various jobs throughout the region, such as menhaden ricker, a seafood chef, a boat captain, and, of course, an oysterman. Jones best described his career with one statement: "All my work is just the water." While Nat Jones is now retired, he has passed his appreciation for the Bay on to his wife, Marvis, and their children, including his son Otis, who now serves as a trustee on CBF's Board. To this day, Nat still enjoys fishing on the waters of the Bay. He's a man who was born on the water and never left. There are a few who can explain the importance of the Bay like the watermen who work it daily. We here at CBF want to make sure that this American Treasure is brought back to the way they remember it. Which brings us to our final stop.

And this is where it all takes place. Our final destination is the crown jewel of CBF's Virginia oyster restoration program. This mobile floating center allows CBF to restore oysters more efficiently than ever, by doubling our Virginia oyster capacity. The oyster gardening shells and reef balls that we talked about earlier come here to be loaded with baby oysters and sent to their final destination throughout the Bay. But we can't do this alone. CBF works closely with a diverse network of over 60 partner organizations in the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance throughout the Chesapeake Bay to achieve our bold, ambitious goal to add 10 billion oysters to the Bay by 2025. But oyster restoration also depends on people like you to be stewards of the Bay, and there are many ways to help, from advocacy to oyster gardening. If you want to get involved, visit CBF.org/action to find out how you can help. Thank you for joining us on this path. We hope you learned something, and will join us in our efforts to save the Bay.

Decades of Success: The 1970s

Even as a young organization, our work was effective and got noticed. Find out what we did.

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Do you enjoy working with others to help clean the Chesapeake Bay? Do you have a few hours to spare? Whether growing oysters, planting trees, or helping in our offices, there are plenty of ways you can contribute.

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